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The Battle Back Home




     The bartender was eyeing my glass with some surprise. I’d walked in, plunked my ass down on a stool and ordered a draft. He watched me as I tipped it back and chugged it down in five huge, easy gulps before slamming the glass back onto the bar with a crack.

     “What do you think?” I asked rudely, my eyes flicking to the news story that had been on a constant loop all day long on the television. The network’s emblem sat prominently in the lower corner while closed captioning scrolled across the top, the lower banner listing senators, commanders, generals, cutting to a clip of a frazzled White House Press Secretary and finally a still of the president, who’d released a short video clip defending his position to withdraw all of our troops.


     The man filled another glass for me, taking in my closely cropped hair and my general physical condition, the field dress and dogtags completely giving me away.

     “Rough day,” he said, hooking his chin toward the television mounted on the wall and I dropped an elbow onto the bar to run a hand over my eyes.

     One thousand and ninety-five days wasted.

     Two hundred and thirty-seven brothers and sisters lost over the course of a three-year tour.

     One ex-wife.

     Four siblings who were going to be really pissed I hadn’t let them know I was home.

     One nosey stepmom who’d been blowing up my phone all day long, like she knew I was back stateside.

     “You have no idea,” I said, closing my fingers around the glass he slid toward me and he nodded slowly, blinking an extra long blink.

     “These two on the house then,” he said quietly. “Thank you for your service.”

     Nodding back at him, I took a slower sip and flicked my eyes back to the TV. It made me want to grind my teeth together, watching the footage of panicked civilians rushing an airplane, hanging onto wings and wheels as it took off.

     Sitting ducks.

     The flight back to the States, a few weeks earlier, had been surreal. I hadn’t told anyone I was coming home, whatever that meant, and I went through demobilization with no thought for what I’d do once I was out. That was why I now sat in a bar in San Diego, only blocks from my sister Seraphina’s house. She had no idea I was stateside, let alone in California.

     My exit from Afghanistan had been planned, my end date firmly established the day I was given my orders, unlike the rest of my troop, most of whom were nowhere near their tour’s end date. Many of them were now sleeping on the floor of the airport in Kabul, waiting for what amounted to an evacuation flight. Whether or not one was forthcoming had my stomach tied up in knots as I thought of the men in my unit who were still there, trapped, unable to get through checkpoints.

     I had flown into Fort Drum weeks earlier, along with eight other men from the 10th Mountain Division and we went through demobilization together, our days a strange contrast to the schedules we’d kept during the time we spent in Kandahar.

     It had been unsettling to be back on the base, the late summer greenery of upstate New York almost searingly bright after an eternity spent in the dry, dusty hills of Kandahar. There was color there, but most of it unnatural, artificial, forced into existence by the irrigation pumps that kept the orchards producing in a dry, dusty landscape. 

     The air in New York felt wrong, too: too cool and humid, and the smells were all off. There were no calls to prayer. No men on prayer rugs outside their homes, facing Mecca and I found myself constantly on edge, always watching my six out of ingrained habit, continually reminding myself that I would not be ambushed on my way to the DFAC.

     Gillian and I had been living off-base when I’d left, in a cute little two-bedroom bungalow. But that was gone now, just like my wife, the lease long since up. She’d taken out a storage unit for the stuff she didn’t want and my things had been sitting in ten-by-ten box for the last two years, waiting for me to come home.

     As a Master Sergeant, my pay grade and single status meant that I could technically live in the barracks. I’d seen some of the dumb shit my guys pulled, though, and I had no desire to be held accountable for the stupid things they did. Sharing a roof with them would unofficially make me their babysitter, the one who had to answer for their stupid pranks gone wrong. No thanks.

     My housing allowance was decent and I wasn’t a real fussy guy, so I found a small apartment near the base after staying a few nights in a local hotel. Rent was cheap because the area was a little sketchy, but it had two bedrooms and a bathroom, a tiny kitchen and a decent living area with what looked like fresh carpet. It beat the hell out of the living conditions I’d endured lately, and I signed a six-month lease before cracking the lock on the storage unit and emptying out my shit.

     Gill hadn’t been real generous when she’d gone through Hers vs. Mine. She’d taken the bed and the dining table, most of the dishes, the TV and all the linens. That left me with a single nightstand, a coffee table, a ratty bookshelf, one oversized club chair and, surprisingly, all the power tools I’d left in the garage when I deployed. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. She couldn’t tell the difference between a staple gun and a cordless drill, much less operate either of them.

     Loading the stuff into the truck I’d bought off an old veteran three days before, I couldn’t help but laugh when I got to the back of the unit and found the box with a Post-It stuck to the face. “I didn’t want to be a total bitch; figured you needed some kind of bed.”

     An air mattress? Real fucking thoughtful, Gill.

     That’s how I found myself at Walmart a couple hours later, buying a cheap set of silverware, a can opener, plastic plates and a box of glasses. I threw in towels, a set of sheets, laundry and dish detergent, trash bags, a few would be enough to get me through for now. I didn’t want to buy a lot of extra shit when I had no idea where I was going to land, because everything about my life right now felt temporary. My enlistment was up and after twenty-one years in one sandbox or another, I wasn’t sure I wanted to re-enlist. I’d already given so much of my life to the Army that, at thirty-eight, I was ready for a change of pace. Maybe I’d get a nine-to-five. Do construction work, or contract work for one of my buddies who ran a security firm. I liked the idea of signing on for one project, one contract, one mission at a time. It gave me a lot more control over my life. The only thing that gave me pause was that if I gave them another two years I was eligible for a full pension. Was it worth it?

     And now, two weeks later, I sat in a bar in San Diego watching in disbelief as everything I, and thousands of others, had worked and sacrificed for, was undone almost overnight. 

     Like hell we were done. 

     I caught the eye of another man sitting toward the back of the room. He’d been zeroed in on the TV while he sipped thoughtfully at his beer, shaking his head. Yeah, he knew it too: A lot of us would be going right the fuck back.

     I caught his eye and nodded and he lifted his chin in a similar nod. It was funny how we could pick each other out of crowds, sometimes by mannerisms and other times by reactions. The way a man moved. The way his eyes scanned a room. I knew just by observing him that he was Special Forces.

     After one more beer I slapped several bills down on the bar and lifted my chin at the bartender. I needed to get out and walk for a while; let the sun leech into my bones and warm the chill that was eating at me from the inside.

     I’d only been out to San Diego a couple times to visit my sister, and that had been before I married Gill. This time I would surprise her before driving north to visit my oldest brother Thomas and my younger brother, Asher. Then I’d drive into Washington to see my next oldest brother, Noah. And though I knew I should, I had absolutely no intention of going to see Dad. I’d have been fine with never seeing him again, and with a little effort I could make that happen.

     Imagine my surprise to pull up in front of my sister’s house to find someone else’s kids playing in her driveway. They looked at me suspiciously when I got out of the car and one ran inside as I crossed the street. The kid reappeared, dragging a woman after her that was definitely not Finn. “Can I help you?” she asked, looking me quickly up and down.

     “Uh, yeah…” I scratched my head, pretty sure I’d gotten the address right. “This is my sister’s place.”

     The woman’s face softened. “You must just be getting back.” She gestured toward my outfit, which clearly marked me as a soldier. Somehow I hadn’t gotten out of the habit of dressing for combat, because it was just one less thing I had to think about. One less decision to make each morning.

     “We bought the place from her last year. I think she said she was moving farther north. Her boyfriend was traded from the Padres to the Giants, if memory serves.” 

     I raised an eyebrow. I hadn’t known about any of that, especially the boyfriend part. Living half the world away with shitty cell service was only partly to blame.

     “I apologize,” I said, pulling my outdated phone out of my pocket. “I guess surprising her isn’t in the cards today.”

     “Well…” She looked over her shoulder, back toward the house. “It might still be. She gave me her number, in case I had any questions about things with the house after closing. I found some papers in one of the cabinets while I was unpacking and I sent them to her...I can give you her address if you don’t mind waiting a moment.”

     A big grin broke out over my face. Hell yeah, I could wait. I couldn’t wait to see the shocked look on Finn’s face when she opened her door; we hadn’t seen each other since I’d rushed home years earlier when Thomas had to bury his son and by now her little rug rat had to be huge. If Griffin took after his parents, he was going to be one tall kid.

     “Here you go.” She emerged from the house with a Post-It note in her hand, shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun as she walked toward me. “I bet she’ll be really excited to see you,” she said with a smile. “Tell her we said hi.”

     I made a very noncommittal noise before thanking her and heading back across the street to my truck. I plugged the address into my GPS and groaned when it pulled up an arrival time close to midnight. Just what I hadn’t planned on today: another eight hours of driving.

     Synching my phone to the truck, I pulled up some Guns ‘N Roses and headed for the highway.




     Heaving another box into the bed of my pickup truck, I paused to run my forearm over my sweaty face. I’d been filling up the truck with boxes for charity and hauling them, one trip at a time, to the Habitat store in town. I’d been working all day on that one task and was discouraged by my progress, a mountain of boxes waiting for me every time I backed up to the garage, like they’d gotten busy while I’d been gone, reproducing like a little cluster of rabbits every time I turned my back.

     Mom’s hoarding had gotten really bad as her disease progressed. I’d finally moved her into my place, to stay with me and my younger sister Samantha was staying with her for the week while I cleaned out the house. The plan was to put it on the market, the profit to go into a fund for her care--overseen largely by me, since Sam and Helena couldn’t be bothered. Hell, I’d had to pay Sam to watch her own mother this week.

     I groaned, eyeing up the stack in the garage. I was on Day Three of my self-imposed task, and at the end of the week I had a company coming in to paint, steam the carpets and perform any minor repairs. I could list for a higher price if I had the house professionally staged but I had neither the time, the patience, nor the funds and my sisters weren’t about to chip in for anything, though God knew they’d take when their chance came.

     If the things I’d found over the past few days were any indication of how quickly my mother was declining, I was really in for it. The thought of watching her regress into a toddler-like state as Pick’s Disease overtook her frontal lobe made me want to weep. Her decline in just the past six months had been rapid, severe and completely terrifying. She’d gone from doctor to doctor and eventually from one specialist to another, having test after test. What her primary care physician had initially suspected was just a severe thyroid disorder was eventually diagnosed as something far worse, far less treatable, far more...terminal.  It seemed there was no medicating her way out of this one.

     Already the personality changes had begun, turning her into a woman I didn’t recognize. She was compulsive, her behavior often inappropriate for the situation, and she’d stopped following any kind of schedule, suddenly losing the very regimented version of herself. That was perhaps the most disturbing thing, because Mom was a stickler. Perfect housekeeping. Regular, balanced meals. A perfectly tended yard. She hosted her book club every Wednesday night and it was Wendy, one of her closest friends, who’d alerted me to the changes a couple months before. Mom wasn’t acting like herself, she said. She was forgetful, sometimes confused, and Wendy had been shocked when Mom had suggested to the book club that they next read a popular BDSM trilogy. This was not normal for a woman who blushed when the pastor read texts from Song of Solomon in church.

     Coming from a very religious upbringing, my mother the poster child for all things inhibited and puritanical, what was it precisely that had caused me to put in for two weeks’ leave and fly across the country? A phone call from Wendy, who suspected Mom was getting her freak on with the neighbor. What was this world coming to, when the woman who taught me I’d go to hell for heavy petting as a teen, was probably riding Mr. Gaskell? The mere thought made me want to bleach my brain.

     At 54, Dorothy Ann Christensen could have passed for 45. Despite her Scandinavian heritage, my mother’s physical appearance seemed to be in some kind of suspended animation. She was tall and lithe, graceful, with a full head of shiny blonde hair and beautiful, cornflower-blue eyes. Men had always been drawn to her, but she’d been mourning my father’s death the past eight years and hadn’t given anyone else the time of day.     

     And believe me, they came calling. I heard all about it from Ava, who was just barely a teenager and still living at home when Daddy died. She stayed with Mama until she put herself through community college and now she worked at some engineering-related job that required extensive security clearance while the company she worked for paid for the rest of her studies.

     Ava had been sure to let me know that caring for Mom for a week was seriously putting her out. She’d had to take time off from her job and would miss classes most of the week, but she was all I had. Katharine had flatly stated that she would under no uncertain terms not be leaving her family or her life behind in San Francisco to care for Mom in any capacity.

     Katharine’s “family” consisted of her sometimes-home husband and two cats and it seemed that was the best excuse she could come up with when it came to telling us, without using the words, that Mom was already dead to her. Maybe we were, too.

     Filling up the truck bed with as many boxes as I could fit, I closed and locked the garage door and made yet another trip to the Habitat drop-off. The director was delighted to see me and could hardly believe her good fortune as I unloaded box after box of brand new things: clothes, books, dishes, seemed Mom had been on a buying spree the last few months, buying anything and everything she set her eyes on. QVC apparently got her hook, line and sinker, because I’d found box after box of unopened purchases sitting in piles around the house.

     I pocketed the tax receipt and shuddered as I latched the tailgate, promising the director several more deliveries tomorrow. I hadn’t even touched the mountains of paper inside the house yet, and I shook my head as I got back into the cab. How had I thought I could handle all of this on my own? There were months of bills to sort, an entire fire safe filled with legal documents to review, and more magazine subscriptions and paper scraps than I could realistically sort through in a lifetime. I’d already placed an order for a junk service to bring two trucks over the next afternoon so that I could fill the beds with boxes and bags of paper, since there was no way in hell this little California town was going to allow me to start any kind of fire in the backyard.

     Finally I’d cleared enough space to back the truck right into the garage, and I filled the bed with boxes one more time before shutting and locking the big rolling door for the night. Then I headed into the house, weary, overwhelmed, pretty much completely incapable of making a single decision more.

     And that was how I found myself sitting in a local diner not an hour later, showered but without a stitch of makeup on my very pale face, shoveling food into my mouth like I didn’t expect to eat for the next week.

     Already I’d inhaled the biggest burger I’d ever seen, and half the fries on my platter-size dinner plate, when the waitress slid a slice of coconut cake next to my meal with a smile. “From the hottie at the counter,” she whispered behind her hand, and I looked up to see a man with short blond hair and warm brown eyes watching me with a half smile.

     “Says he likes to see a woman really put it away,” she commented and I rolled my eyes. Men and their stupid euphemisms involving food. Like I couldn’t see through that one. Enjoying my meal didn’t mean I was going to eat anyone’s dick, thank you very much. In my experience, even small tokens came with strings. Still...there was no way in hell I was going to let a slice of cake go to waste, so I plowed through the rest of my fries, finished my water and hammered through the cake without looking up again.

     “Damn.” The voice was rich and velvety and I choked as I tried to swallow the last mouthful of cake. Suddenly it had turned to dust in my mouth.

     “I hope you always eat like that,” he said, sliding into the booth across from me and, getting a good look at his face, he was clearly older than I’d have initially pegged him for. Tall, broad, beautiful...hardened, in a way, and I figured the clothes were an indication he’d seen more than his fair share of the darker things both life and death had to offer.

     “Thanks for the cake,” I said flatly, stacking the dessert plate onto my dinner plate and crossing the silverware over the top. “I’m not interested.”

     His eyebrows shot up. “In what, dessert? No one says no to that.”

     “Sleeping with you,” I said, grabbing the receipt the waitress had left for me and digging around in my battered tote bag for my wallet.

     “Uh…” His eyes darted between the table, my handbag and me. “Where was that on the menu?”

     “Cute.” I pushed out of the booth and stood, looping the long handles of the bag over my very sore shoulder. “Thank you. It was unnecessary and even kind of you, but I am exhausted and I’m going home before I go into a total coma.”

     He stood quickly, taking my wallet from me and dropping it back into my bag without touching a single part of my body. He fished his wallet from a pocket then and snatched the ticket from my hand, walking to the front register with both tickets, handing several bills to the lady behind it. Then, since I was still standing there like a dumbstruck moron--which I was--he left a nice tip on the table and turned toward the door.

     “You coming?”

     What? I stood there, frozen in place, my brain having cranked to a painful halt.

     He turned and walked the few steps back to me, a small smile on his really, very stupid-handsome face. He grabbed my hand and I let him lead me out of the diner and into the cool night air.

Copyright 2021, Erin FitzGerald

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